Rock Around the Bloc: The British Beat Blasts Through the Iron Curtain

The post below began as a brief piece about a short-lived 1960s Slovakian band with a Beatles bent, The Beatmen. It seemed entertaining enough; a bit laughable, really. While researching the subject, it quickly became evident that the story of The Beatles’ influence in the Soviet Union was much more than mere novelty. In most cases, the articles you’ll find on Liverpool Genepool will focus on the musical aspects of The Beatles and their influence. At times, though, additional historical context is necessary in order to effectively present a music-based article. The creation of this particular story called for just such an expansion. The occasion of this extra-long post offers a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that the far-reaching cultural impact of The Beatles will never be measurable by their music alone, if indeed it can be measured at all. —S.M.


Let me hear your balalaikas ringing out . . .

In a fascinating New York Daily News article, writer Michael Walsh expounds on The Beatles’ very real contribution to overthrowing Communism in the Soviet Union. However unwittingly, the group accomplished this simply by awakening an urge in Soviet youths to embrace the possibility of freedom embodied in The Beatles’ music. In light of this discovery, it’s ironic at the very least that The Beatles and many of their fellow rock music practitioners were once thought to be responsible for perpetuating a communist plot in their work. True enough, the group and its music comprised a force capable of creating cultural change, and for that very reason Beatles recordings were strictly forbidden behind the Iron Curtain.

That didn’t stop young people from improvising collarless Beatle-styled jackets (“Bitlovka”) and fashioning makeshift Beatle footwear from combat boots. Neither did the law succeed in preventing the entry of Beatles music into the country. The distribution of their music, which began with citizens smuggling it in from the West or taping it from radio broadcasts, was accomplished through methods as bizarrely ingenious as encoding it onto X-ray emulsion plates and selling it on the black market.

Around 1960, Radio Luxembourg, a multilingual commercial European station launched in the 1930s, began designing its programming to cater to the burgeoning young rock ‘n’ roll audience. Radio Luxembourg’s powerful medium-wave signal, despite a degree of interference, reached into Eastern Europe and Russia. As the only European station that was programming British and American pop hits at that time, it was a vital pipeline to listeners in the culturally sequestered Soviet Union. Because Radio Luxembourg’s programming carried no political agenda or bias, it appeared to pose no threat to the Communist Party; as such, authorities made no effort to block its signal. One of the station’s most popular programs, the weekly Top Twenty, would have exposed listeners behind the Iron Curtain to The Beatles and others in the upper reaches of the English pop charts. If you’d tuned in on August 1, 1965, you’d have heard the show open with the No. 1 hit of the week: The Beatles’ “Help!” (Thanks to former Radio Luxembourg disc jockey Dick Offringa’s efforts, you can listen to that original broadcast right here.)

Just as the music did in the free world, it spurred countless young would-Beatles to take up six-stringed implements of change and personal expression, if not initially wielding them in opposition to the symbolic hammer and sickle. The birth of the Soviet Big Beat would occur during a time when communist control was easing off in some parts of the Eastern Bloc countries. In retrospect, that brief period seems to retain the same feeling of innocence that accompanied The Beatles’ initial emergence in both Europe and America, having preceded the late-’60s political upheaval that transpired (albeit in different ways) in both the Eastern and Western worlds.

In a related Liverpool Genepool post (The Beatmen/ “Safely Arrived”), we’ve already had a quick look at one of the bands that brought the British beat to Bratislava, the urban center and capital city of Slovakia. The Beatmen, while they never managed to parlay their regional success into a sustained career, were for a time the most popular band in the region. The band’s fame was further buttressed with an appearance in the 1966 film Nylonovy mesiac (Nylon moon).

The dark, psychological drama’s cast included teenaged Beatmen vocalist-guitarist Dežo Ursiny in a modest non-musical role intended to represent the growing gulf between youths and their parents, with pop music acting as the agent causing the generational divide. In the video clip below, we see two consecutive performances of “That’s All I’ve Got to Do,” the first taking place within an incidental story scene that shows the band rehearsing. The song, presumably a band original, is an R&B-styled rave-up not unlike something The Kinks or The Yardbirds might have tried on for size, but the intent is strongly Beatlesque. This becomes clearer in the second performance, which reveals the quartet arrayed in matching stagewear and bashing out the beat for a throng of enthusiastic youths crammed into a dank-looking, low-ceilinged venue, a dead ringer for Liverpool’s now-iconic Cavern Club.

It’s also evident that the extras in the crowd were prompted to parrot the maniacal mannerisms first exhibited by Western Beatle fans, a maneuver that comes off laughably forced at times but demonstrates how powerfully the news of The Beatles’ pandemonium-triggering effect had proliferated around the world. The Beatmen, likely inspired by The Beatles’ own German-language recording of “She Loves You” (“Sie Liebt Dich”), would record a credible cover of the song in their native Slovakian tongue, which actually comes off more smoothly that the phonetically clumsy German version.

In a peculiar turn of events, a British spy who once shadowed the Soviet military ended up becoming the cameraman who shot the first footage of The Beatles performing in the Cavern Club after Ringo Starr had replaced drummer Pete Best. The former member of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Leslie Woodhead, would later interview Russian citizens who confirmed to him many times over that The Beatles’ cultural influence had lit the fuse leading to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. One of Woodhead’s anecdotes revealed that Russian youths had oftentimes learned basic English by writing down lyrics from the Beatles songs that inevitably penetrated the Soviet ban.

For a several-year period in the ’60s, bands like The Beatmen were uncharacteristically tolerated by government officials, who were then promoting a more moderate mindset that allowed for the inflow of Western influence. The film A Hard Day’s Night was in fact screened in Poland, inspiring the formation of the legendary Polish rock band Czerwone Gitary (“The Red Guitars”). In the clip below, the band members engage in full-on snowball battle in a simple concept likely derived from A Hard Day’s Night‘s musical action sequences.

The members of Polish band Niebiesko-Czarni also appear to have been influenced by A Hard Day’s Night; the foursome lifted the harmonica-driven two-chord intro of the film’s featured number “I Should Have Known Better” for its recording of “Hej Tam w Dolinie.” Though simply a popular folk song dressed in British garb, it transcends its native origin, thanks to an engaging and earnest performance (its amateurish harmonica playing aside) in which the singers’ acquired Lennon and McCartney vocal inflections audibly slice through the singers’ thick Eastern European dialects.

Niebiesko-Czarni’s transformation of the traditional Polish song is notable, as is immediately evident upon comparing it with the more traditional rendition in the clip below it. While the band’s grasp of Beatle-song characteristics is impressive, it points to something even more impressive: the musical template created by Liverpool’s finest was so sturdy and identifiable that it could be applied to virtually any song form and still retain its signature sound.

The Big Beat boom of Eastern Europe was as short-lived as its Western counterpart, though it propelled some of its stars to lengthy careers. The Beatmen, one of only a few Eastern Bloc acts to perform in West Germany, would later emigrate there in hopes of seizing more artistic freedom. Band frontman Dežo Ursiny opted to remain behind in Bratislava. Without him, his former band would soon splinter. Ursiny and his fellow Slovakian musicians would suffer repression and be forced to remove English language and references from their music after communist forces invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, quashing the cultural reforms that had begun to flower.

Ursiny would, however, become one of his country’s most successful and prolific musicians, creating progressive jazz-rock and film soundtracks in addition to becoming a screenwriter and director. The inventive nature of his later works, though they would take an often-abstract path, likely owe a debt to the intrepid artistic leaps The Beatles would make in the latter part of the 1960s.

The late ’60s and ’70s brought a return to indigenous forms of entertainment. American-styled rock would continue to crop up in the sounds of Eastern European bands who succumbed to native language demands but still pushed against government control. Many other performers would instead choose to curry favor with political officials by wearing traditional costumes and emphasizing folk-song traditions, a practice that was especially prevalent in Poland. As long as some concessions were made to the native culture, it was possible for an act to remain Western-influenced. All-female Polish vocal group Alibabki, dressed in contemporary matching pantsuits, recorded a cover of The Beatles’ Alibabki “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” an innocuous McCartney-penned ditty whose polka-like rhythm and sing-song melody was ideally suited to just such an application. (Unfortunately, the original music video has been blocked on copyright grounds, leaving us only this YouTube video featuring a thin-sounding flexi-disc version.)

To clear the palate, we’ll close with a second clip from Czerwony Guitary, considered to be the Polish equivalent of The Beatles due to the band’s massive success between 1965 and the early 1970s. While the group’s wardrobe reflects the look of late ’60s psychedelia and Sgt. Pepper/Magical Mystery Tour fashion, the song performed here is a chronological and cultural curiosity, blending a mid-’50s Chuck Berry boogie beat with both traditional Polish and contemporary Western-world elements. It may not be too much of a stretch to credit this, too, to the ingenious and unrestricted fusion of styles The Beatles brought into the pop music zeitgeist. Or, it might just be the result of musicians doing their best to interpret something that was beamed in from another world.

As a personal aside, I had an opportunity to visit Germany in 1992, three years after the Berlin Wall had begun to come down, and roughly two years after reunification took place between capitalist West Germany and the territory that had formerly been communist East Germany, where abandoned guard towers still loomed ominously along the landscape.

There I met a thirty-something-year-old man named Michael Hynek, who had lived on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. I was in his country as a professional musician on tour; he was our bus driver. Our conversation inevitably turned to music and, soon, to The Beatles. His enthusiasm was striking as he proudly told me about the pair of Beatles recordings he had managed to covertly obtain: a bootlegged reel-to-reel tape of the White Album, probably a recording of a radio broadcast, and a tape of the “Blue album,” a compilation of American hit singles released between 1967 and 1970.

Imagine being a Beatles fan in your mid-thirties whose collection only included excerpts from their last few years together; no “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” no “I Feel Fine” or “Day Tripper,” no Rubber Soul or Revolver, no Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band! Imagine, if you can, how mind-blowing it would be to put the puzzle together in reverse, hearing Beatles music from 1963 through 1966 and trying to wrap your head around the mystery: how could John, Paul, George and Ringo possibly have gotten from “Please Please Me” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “A Day in the Life” and “Hey Jude” within a matter of a few years?

Nearly dumbstruck by this injustice, I promised to send Michael cassettes of every original-era Beatles album after I returned to the States. I sent the tapes in a few separate mailings over a period of several weeks, giving him a chance to absorb it in portions. I wish I had saved the letter of gratitude he sent. Just the memory of it, though, is enough to remind me what the music of The Beatles means to people across the globe, and what a privilege it was to be one man’s guide to a universe of music about which he had once only dreamed. It also reminds me, an American-born citizen, how easy it was—and still is—to take all that music for granted.

—Steve Morley

Additional reading:

Thanks are in order to the authors of the following books, which were very helpful sources for this article.

Anti-rock: The Opposition to Rock ‘n’ Roll by Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave

The Establishment Responds: Power, Politics and Protest Since 1945 by Kathrin Fahlenbrach

Also providing specific source material was Wikipedia’s “Rock and Roll and the Fall of Communism” page.

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